For Jane Austen hats were important items of clothing. She took great delight in wearing and purchasing them, as this arch extract from her letter to her sister, Cassandra dated 18th April 1811 clearly demonstrates:
Miss Burton has made me a very pretty title Bonnet- & now nothing can satisfy me but I must have a straw hat, of the riding hat shape, like Mrs Tilson’s; & a young woman in this Neighbourhood is actually making me one. I am really very shocking; but it will not be dear at a Guinea.
The admirable new Subject Index to the Fourth Edition of Jane Austen’s Letters has copious entries for mentions of bonnets, caps, hats and veils. Understanding the differences between the type of hat Jane Austen and her characters would have worn, how and where she would have bought such hats, for herself or on commission, has recently been addressed in a new book written by Serena Dyer of Dressing History.
This is a slim but well written-volume packed full of fascinating early 19th century hat facts and information. Do you know the difference between a Calash or a Capote? You will after reading this very informative book. The book is illustrated with black and white renditions of period fashion plates and very clear, helpful line drawing by Christine Dyer. Here is a Gypsy Hat such as may have been worn by the odious Mrs Elton on the day of the Strawberry Picking Party at Donwell Abbey:
Serena also gives a short account of Milliners and how their trade was carried out in the early 19th century. An interesting snippet she includes in their section is that many ladies paid to learn how to trim their own bonnets: a Miss Elizabeth Woodhouse ( no relation I’m sure)
who would become the wife of a Yorkshire vicar,paid her milliner, Miss Volans, ten pounds to instruct her in the art
This small book is very reasonably priced at £5.00 and is available direct from Serena herself, go here to buy it. Serena,who is now studying at the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies at York University, is an accomplished milliner herself and trims a mean bonnet. You can buy some of her examples from her shop, go here to see. This is one of her confections, a straw poke bonnet:
Hard to resist isn’t it?